Dogfish Head Brewery is one of the most famous East Coast breweries largely because of its founder, Sam Calagione, and his obsession with strange beers. Dogfish Head opened as a brewpub named Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in 1995 in Rehoboth, Del. This was the first brewery to open in the state since Prohibition was lifted, and Calagione actually had to have the law changed to allow the business to open. The brewpub flourished, no doubt helped by the lack of competition at the time, and quickly moved from their 12-gallon system to a 12-barrel system, allowing for bottling and distribution. By 2002 Dogfish Head had outgrown its second brewery, and to meet the increased demand they moved their main brewing and bottling operations to a new facility in Milton, Del., which continues to expand.
The strange obsession with beer has stayed with Dogfish Head since its beginning. Calagione’s first beer was a pumpkin beer named Punkin Ale. This, as explained by Calagione, was the beer that convinced him to open the brewery. He entered it into the food contest at Punkin Chunkin and won first place, which made him think, “How hard could this be?” Since then, Calagione has made the brewery’s motto “Off-centered ales for off-centered people,” which perfectly describes his brewing style.
I have never even heard of, much less seen, a “normal” beer from Dogfish Head. Calagione always has some special twist on the style. The perfect examples are their Chicory Stout and IPA line. The Chicory Stout combines the standard malt and hops with oatmeal, coffee and chicory, which gives it a unique taste that I thoroughly enjoy. The IPAs, on the other hand, always seem too sweet for me. Given the other Dogfish Head beers I’ve had, this is not surprising, but I don’t know if it’s by flaw or design. Because of this, I’ve never really known how to evaluate Calagione’s brewing abilities. Is he actually a fantastic brewer who can’t stand mundane beers, or is he actually not very good technically but covers for it by experimenting with crazy things?
The beer I picked up this week was Palo Santo Marron. This is a roasted brown ale, which Dogfish Head ferments in a 10,000-gallon tank made from Palo Santo wood harvested in Paraguay. This wood is a member of the ironwood family, which is noted for being so dense that it sinks in water, and its name means “holy stick” or “holy wood” in Spanish. This beer should be served in a pint glass, and it pairs well with cheddar cheese and strong meats such as chorizo and other sausages, Cajun cooking, or just a good steak.
The beer poured completely black. I think it was clear, but even at the edges not much light got through. A very thin skim of dark-brown foam formed during pouring, but it quickly dissipated, leaving some lacing behind. The nose was dark with some initial plummy quotes, leaving behind a nice, savory chocolate aroma over the roast. It is not sweet milk chocolate like Young’s Double Chocolate Stout but more like cocoa powder. The body and carbonation were both moderate and disappeared into the beer. The taste had the typical Dogfish Head sweetness, but in this beer it actually works really well. Up front there is chocolate with some roastiness, and there is a nice, lightly roasted finish with some caramel. The Palo Santo wood provides some nice wood depth, similar to oak with its vanilla, but distinctly different.
I really liked this beer, and I highly recommend trying it. I think it’s one of the best ones that Dogfish Head turns out, and I think Calagione really hit on a winning combination of roastiness, wood character and sweetness. You do need to be careful with it, however, as this is a heavy hitter.